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Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Rebecca Gould

-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I have a BA from the University of California Berkeley in Comparative and Slavic Literatures (double major). After I received my degree, I spent two years living in Tbilisi, Georgia, during when I embarked on the research that went into my first book Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), which examines anticolonial poetry and prose during the tsarist and Soviet periods. My PhD dissertation (Columbia University, 2013) deals a literary genre from a much earlier period: the medieval Persian prison poem. I am very lucky to have recently joined the University of Birmingham, where, as a Professor of Islamic World and Comparative Literature, I am able to bring together my wide-ranging interests in the Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature, from the medieval period to the postcolonial present.

 

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

My current book project is tentatively entitled Narrating Catastrophe: Forced Migration from Colonialism to Postcoloniality. This work tells of an aspect of the colonial encounter in the Caucasus that Writers and Rebels ignores. Both this and my first book were inspired by the experience of living in Tbilisi, Georgia, from 2004-6, among Georgian intellectuals and Chechen refugees. When I engaged with the history of the peoples I was living with and learning from, I began to notice two ways in which the past was remembered. The first way, of glorifying and sanctifying anticolonial violence, became the focus of Writers and Rebels. The second approach to the past that I noticed involved memorializing narratives of forced migration from the Caucasus to Ottoman lands (during the tsarist period) and Central Asia (during the Soviet period), such that forced migration became a recurring trope within popular culture. This repeated story of forced migration that dominates the literatures of the Caucasus is the subject of Narrating Catastrophe.  The term for this story, hijra, refers to the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina as well as to subsequent migrations, both forced and voluntary, within Islamic history.

 

 

-How did you arrive at this topic?

In Narrating Catastrophe, I explore the many meanings of forced migrations across the Islamic world, with a particular focus on the Caucasus. The more immersed I became in Caucasus narratives of displacement, the more clearly I saw that these narratives intersect with other narratives from elsewhere in the Islamic world, including the nakba (catastrophe) among Palestinians and the expulsion of Spanish Muslims during the Reconquista, which is also referred to as hijra. Although these events are obviously distinct, they are united by their narrative connection to early Islam. Needless to say, the connection I refer to is more narratival than historical, but as a scholar of Comparative Literature, it is precisely the imaginative links that extend across continents and which have persisted across centuries that I find fascinating.

 

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

To start with the most obvious: as a scholar of the Islamic world, I believe that the world I work on has a special contribution to make to policy debates. By viewing Islamic history through the prism of hijra—rather than through more violent idioms, such as that of jihad—I offer readers a means to engage with core Islamic narratives outside the polarizations that circulate in the media accounts that are the primary source for popular understanding of Islam. Another area in which this project stands to make an impact is on how we understand migration. Generally, migration is viewed from the perspective of the interests and norms of the host country. What would migration looked like if viewed from the perspective of the migrant? Narrating Catastrophe offers one answer to this question. Like Thomas Nail, whose recent book The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford, 2015), reveals how the migrant condition applies to all of us, my use of the hijra narrative showcases the general relevance of this concept and its attendant histories across the Islamic world. Rather than offer an historical account, I am developing a political theory around Islamic migration, based primarily on literary narratives from the Caucasus. The final area of impact is to do with the Caucasus itself. To my mind, the Caucasus is one of the most understudied, yet most fascinating regions of the world. It combines Muslim, Christian, and other religions traditions in close proximity to each other and is unsurpassed in terms of its linguistic and cultural diversity. Throughout my work, I have developed the idea of the Caucasus as a marginalised crossroads, meaning a geography that nearly always finds itself on edges of power and yet which maintains a kind of centrality to European and Islamic culture. By immersing my readers in an intertextual tradition that they surely will not have encountered before, I hope to enable them to think differently about migration and mobility, and from perspectives they have not contemplated before.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions With Laura Wright

wrights

What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I earned a BA in theatre and a BA in English at the University of Montana and completed my MA at UConn.  I am currently a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Connecticut and a Draper Dissertation fellow at UCHI.

 

What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am completing my dissertation, “Prizing Difference: PEN Awards and Multiculturalist Politics in American Fiction.” In this project, I examine the Poets, Essayists, Novelists (PEN) organization and map the contested national and international politics of book prizes. In particular, awards such as the PEN/Faulkner have determined the scope of what has become an identifiable twentieth- and twenty-first century American literary canon. Focused on Latinx, African American, Asian American, and Jewish American writers “Prizing Difference” considers multiple hierarchies of power, the material factors of publishing, and the evolving politics of “multiculturalism” in the US academy.

 

How did you arrive at this topic?

There were two moments that really launched my thinking on this topic. I have had a long-standing interest in canon formation (adjudicating what “counts” and what doesn’t in American Literature) and my committee asked me a question specifically on this topic in my PhD exams.  In attempting to answer the question, I struggled to define “canon.”  There were too many variables in play to settle on a stable definition that scholars, teachers, students, and readers could agree upon.  Is Toni Morrison a great African American novelist or a great American novelist?  What are the political and cultural consequences of these different designations?  Book prizes helped me negotiate this difficulty by offering a fixed list of winners that constitute a particular idea of the American novel as determined by the prize committee.

 

The idea that book prizes can form canons was reinforced the next time I took a trip to my public library.  In browsing the shelves, I noticed that the library has stickers that help identify the genre of a novel.  For instance, a space ship sticker helps readers readily locate science fiction while a sticker of a magnifying glass indicates detective fiction.  One of these stickers, to my surprise, used a blue ribbon to categorize books as “Prize Winners.”  This suggested that prize-winning novels might have significant commonalities between texts, forming a new genre of their own.

 

What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

Book prizes offer a way of discerning “what counts” as American Literature historically, but also as recently as this year.  Without the vantage of a lengthy publication history or repeated encounters with a particular work in a classroom setting, book prizes help us identify significant cultural texts.  Additionally, these prizes form a critical link between the public and the university.  People (myself included) often select reading material based on the endorsements of a particular prize.  I argue that by thinking through the engagement between prizes and politics, we can gain a better understanding of our cultural values, particularly around racial identity.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Jorell Melendez Badillo

melendez-badillos

What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I possess a BA in History and a MA in History of the Americas from the Inter American University in Puerto Rico. I was also a recipient of the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship (2016-2017), which allowed me to make substantial progress in my project. At UCHI, I will finish writing my dissertation, currently titled Our Turn to Speak: The Creation of Puerto Rican Workers’ Intellectual Communities, 1897-1952.

 

What is the project you’re currently working on?

My dissertation tells the story of how a cluster of self-educated workers burst into Puerto Rico’s world of letters at the turn of the twentieth century. These workers navigated the polity that emerged from the 1898 U.S. occupation by asserting themselves as citizens, as producers of their own historical narratives, and ultimately, as learned minds. My project shifts the historiographical focus from class-based analyses towards the study of workers’ intellectual yearnings, aesthetic sensibilities, and radical desires.

 

By following leads, often as small as a stamp on a letter, I have traced the trajectory of workers that went from being ignored by the cultural elite to eventually become part of the national mythology. Following these traces have taken me to archives in Puerto Rico, Europe, and the United States, and allowed me to document how workers participated in the international circulation of print media, imagining themselves as part of the global labor community. However, while these workers took part in these transnational networks, labor leaders enacted exclusions locally by pushing black people, women, and non-skilled workers to the margins of the labor movement they founded and the historical archive they produced.

 

How did you arrive at this topic?

My dissertation grew out of the research for my first book, Voces libertarias: Orígenes del anarquismo en Puerto Rico, currently in its third edition. Tracing the circulation of anarchist ideas developed my broader interest in global subaltern circuits of knowledge. While I had initially located Puerto Rico in a global context, it became increasingly important to situate my work within a Latin American framework to fully grasp the events covered in my dissertation. This led me to explore the connections of seemingly local incidents with wider regional developments, such as nation-building processes, populist politics, and the relation of marginal intellectuals with the state.

Beyond academic influences, my interest for the topics I study comes from lived experiences. Listening to family stories can have a profound impact on one’s career choices and passions. It certainly did for me. Raised by my grandparents in a rural barriada, or working-class neighborhood, in Puerto Rico, I came of age listening to fifteen great aunts and uncles recount long shifts in tobacco factories and train rides across the island in search of work cutting sugar cane under the blistering sun. What I learned from their memories about labor struggles, exclusions, and migration shapes my worldview and provides me with a compass for the questions I ask in my own scholarly research and in my teaching.

 

What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

“In the institutional knowledge of universities in the United States, the place of Puerto Rico is very uncertain,” wrote literary scholar Arcadio Díaz Quiõnez more than two decades ago. He continued, “Since it’s neither ‘Latin American,’ nor ‘North American,’ it ends up being erased.” Thus, my work’s major intervention is to locate Puerto Rico in the broader cartography of knowledges within US academia. More broadly, my dissertation seeks to yield light on the production of ideas of those that were not considered legitimate producers of knowledge because they lacked academic degrees or access to cultural capital. In sum, it demonstrates how those in the margins, those that were deemed culturally unfit, and those that were silenced because of their race or their gender have been crucial in shaping the ever-incomplete process of imagining the Puerto Rican nation.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Tracy Llanera

 

What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

After completing my BA and MA in the Philippines, I moved to Sydney, Australia to do a Ph.D. in philosophy at Macquarie University in 2012. I wrote a thesis on the American pragmatist Richard Rorty and the idea of redemption in modernity. My degree was awarded in Apr 2016. At present, I am affiliated with Macquarie University and teach undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the Department of Philosophy and Department of Anthropology.

This Fall, I’ll be a residential fellow at the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute for the project Humility & Conviction in Public Life. After my fellowship at UCHI, I’ll be a visiting research fellow in philosophy at Keele University, United Kingdom in Winter 2018.

 

What is the project you’re currently working on?

I’ll be working on a project entitled “Combating Egotism: Intellectual Humility as Self-Enlargement” at UCONN. I aim to develop the concepts of egotism and self-enlargement as ways of understanding what the virtue of intellectual humility might mean in the healthy functioning of a modern liberal democracy. In particular, I’d like to fashion the idea of self-enlargement in a manner that is indebted to the pluralist conception of intellectual humility. This is an exciting turn for me since it serves as my first attempt to take my research toward the direction of virtue theory. If successful, I’d like to next work on exploring the relationship between the concept of irony and the virtue of intellectual humility.

 

As a separate project, I’m also working on a book entitled Outgrowing Modern Nihilism. In this work, I challenge the orthodox view that human culture should overcome the malaise of nihilism. In contrast, I argue that it should instead outgrow the problem. It’s going to be tough to defend this argument — good thing I don’t have a deadline!

 

How did you arrive at this topic?

Egotism and self-enlargement are important concepts in my Ph.D. thesis, a thesis that generally belongs in the area of philosophy of religion and the philosophical problems of modernity. Applying for the fellowship made me realize that these concepts could be potentially useful in social and political philosophy as well, especially if read through the lens of intellectual humility. I’m really glad that I could explore this new phase of my research at UCONN, where there are so many philosophical experts on virtue theory.

 

In terms of nihilism, well, I like the irony behind the fact that there is so much to talk about nothing!

 

What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

I’ve set three practical goals for the fellowship project. First, I hope to articulate a philosophically workable concept of egotism. While egotism is Richard Rorty’s trope, the concept has room for stronger analysis from a conceptual and historical perspective. Egotism is already familiar and adaptable to different disciplines (philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis). It has family resemblances to socially recognizable traits and conditions (e.g., narcissism, egocentrism, megalomania) which interest audiences both in the academia and the general public. The conceptualization of egotism I offer retains its fundamental link to the metaphysical frameworks of religion and science, which the language of philosophy (especially Rorty’s) can effectively articulate. Second, I try to explore how egotism could be overcome. My project recommends cultivating a deep commitment to self-enlargement in a liberal democracy, which in my view challenges deep-seated and implicit biases about what it means to pursue projects of self-authenticity and good citizenship in a liberal democracy. Third, this fellowship project develops some of my work for public engagement on egotism. In terms of engaging a broader audience, my essay “Seeking Shelter in a Terrifying Father Figure” published in The Indypendent profiles two political egotists: United States President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In the future, I hope to write more incisive pieces for better public understanding of egotism as a result of my research at UCHI.

 

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco

LaGuardia-LoBianco

-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department here at UConn, where I have studied for five years. I received my B.A. in Philosophy from Stony Brook University. 

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

 During my fellowship year, I will be finishing my dissertation, “Action Guidance in Complicated Cases of Suffering,” in which I assess ethical responses to suffering given the nuanced ways in which someone may suffer. Ethicists hold that suffering is ethically relevant: another’s suffering calls for some ethical response, often relief of that suffering. However, this general formula hides some problematic assumptions. It takes the suffering agent as an unwitting victim who ought to be helped but does not necessarily owe anything to herself. It also assumes that, barring extreme circumstances, suffering ought to be relieved. My dissertation challenges these assumptions, arguing that the suffering agent is a moral agent, not just a victim dependent on others, and who therefore has obligations to herself. Additionally, I argue that relief of suffering is not always ethically appropriate. Rather, ethical responses to suffering are not unidimensional, but are as complex as suffering itself.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I was lucky to take a philosophy course with Joel Kupperman here at UConn. During our discussion of Buddhism, which takes as its starting point the elimination of suffering, I was stuck on the question, why should we want to eliminate suffering? From there, I started thinking about the potential value of suffering, arguing that there are virtues that come from suffering that make it worthwhile. I then pivoted and became interested in internalized trauma and self-caused suffering. I turned to oppression literature for a framework to discuss cases in which someone unwittingly contributes to their own suffering because of oppressive or abusive forces. I realized that much ethical literature treats suffering as a blanket emotional or physical pain, and in so doing, oversimplifies widely varying experiences. These nuances matter: we should expect that the right ethical response to suffering depends on variables like the appropriateness of that suffering, whether suffering is caused by internalized behaviors, or whether an individual wants to suffer. This led me to take the suffering agent, rather than the phenomenon of suffering, as the focus of study, in an effort to recast her as a moral agent rather than a mere victim. Now, my dissertation is driven by analyzing difficult cases of suffering (such as self-injury or self-defeating behavior) with the suffering agent at the focus of analysis. 

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

I’m interested in messy, real-life problems that have been overlooked by philosophical analysis yet which can benefit from it. I think philosophy is meant to deal with just these sorts of difficulties, rolling up its sleeves and trying to untangle a problem knowing that the solution won’t be neat and pretty but trying to find an answer anyway. Real suffering is complicated. It can change someone from the outside in, it can test and destroy close relationships, and it can become something an individual depends on to feel like herself. It matters to our lives, to who we are and who we care about. So, suffering and suffering agents deserve the careful attention that philosophy provides to make some headway in understanding and addressing this painful reality. My hope is that this work will give others (philosophers or not) a new avenue to reckon with their own experiences of suffering. 

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Sarah Berry

 

-What is your academic background and what is your current position at UConn?

I am a PhD candidate in the English department at UConn. I began the program in 2012. Before that, I earned a bachelor’s degree in an interdisciplinary Great Texts program from Baylor University and a master’s degree in English literature from Boston College.

 

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

The title of my dissertation is “The Politics of Voice in Twentieth-Century Verse Drama.” It is a transatlantic study of plays that are written in verse (instead of prose) during the last hundred years. I argue that verse drama gets revived in the twentieth century not as a genre in its own right but as a hybrid of poetry and drama, which makes it a venue for experimentation with different literary and dramatic forms as well as literary and dramatic voices. All this experimentation with voice has political implications as well, since voice is as much a political concept as a literary one. Twentieth-century playwrights use the different vocal possibilities of verse drama to respond creatively to a variety of contemporary political crises, including fascism, colonialism, the struggle for civil rights, class conflict, and sectarian violence.

 

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I came to this topic from an interest in weird plays: radio plays, plays with stage directions written in verse, plays in which characters blur together or become someone else. I realized that what makes these plays so weird is that they are half drama, half poetry. They combine the rules and conventions of lyric poetry with those of modern drama, but sometimes these rules and conventions contradict one another. So I set out to investigate the tension between the dramatic elements and lyric elements of these plays.

 

 

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

My hope for this study is that it will make people rethink the relationship between poetry and drama. We often think of poetry, especially lyric poetry, as the opposite of drama, but there is a long history, right up to the present day, of the interaction between these two genres. In fact, I think our conceptions of these genres are interdependent—that is, our understanding of lyric poetry is based on shifting notions of what drama is, and our understanding of what drama is has been informed by the emergence of lyric poetry as its own genre during the nineteenth century. This study is timely in genre studies, where scholars are contesting the value of categories like the lyric. But verse drama also provides us with an opportunity to think more broadly about the way that genres are created and reinforced.

I also hope that my study will demonstrate the inextricable relationship between form and genre on the one hand and politics on the other. Genre theory can sometimes seem abstract—or only of interest to literature scholars—but I think these plays show that questions of genre are necessarily intertwined with questions of politics, specifically through voice, which is always both literary and political.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Deirdre Bair

Deirdre Bair

-What is your academic background and what is your current position at UConn?

MA and PhD from Columbia University, comparative literature major.  Tenured professor at U. of Pennsylvania.  Visiting professor, writer in residence, or distinguished scholar at (among other titles) Ohio State University; Bennington College; Macquarie and Griffith Universities. Humanities Institute at Australian National University, Canberra, (all Australia),  Visiting lecturer at Paris VII, Kassel U. (Germany), Upsala U. (Sweden), James Joyce Summer School ( University College, Dublin).  These are selected.  Currently independent scholar and writer.

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

Bio/Memoir: the Accidental Biographer (working title, subject to change).  It is the history of the seven years for each biography I wrote, of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. During those years I knew and worked with each subject on the research and writing.  It will include new information that was not appropriate to publish during their lifetimes, and it will also detail my coming of age as a writer and feminist.  It will be both a history of my personal evolution throughout this historical moment and will also address the many professional decisions I made as I created a new form of contemporary biography. It will also elaborate on how the genre evolved over the last several decades.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I decided to write this book because so many individuals and organizations have asked me about my experiences. Other biographers, historians, psychologists, and art historians want my testimony for their books and because they sometimes change what I tell them to fit it into their particular theories or world views, I’ve decided to write my own account first so that my version of “the truth” (in all the post-modern ramifications of that term) will be on the record. After that, they are free to interpret it as they wish.

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

I hesitate to make assumptions about the impact my work will have.  I simply offer it as part of a historical record so that future scholars and writers may use it as they will.  I think of Margaret Atwood here, who said how can we think we are providing permanent answers now when we don’t even know what questions future generations will be asking.

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Mark Healey

healey-What is your academic background and what is your current position at UConn?
 
I have a doctorate in Latin American history from Duke University, and taught at NYU, the University of Mississippi, and the University of California, Berkeley before coming to UConn in 2011. I teach on the urban, environmental, and political history of modern Latin America. My strongest areas of interest are Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Brazil, but I have the pleasure of teaching broadly about the region for both undergraduates and graduate students. There’s a lively community of Latin Americanists here, in Humanities and Social Sciences, which has made UConn an engaging place to teach.

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Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Daniel Hershenzon

hershenzon-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

My first degree, from the University of Tel Aviv, is a double major of Philosophy and History. Before getting this degree , I was studying industrial design. I left the world of design for the university when I realized that I was enjoying the history and theory classes much more than the design workshops. After receiving my B.A., I continued to study towards a Masters degree and in 2004 enrolled in a PhD program in the Department of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was lucky to spend two years of my graduate studies researching in Spain (in Madrid, Valladolid, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands!), and another year in Florence, Italy, with a postdoctoral fellowship after I graduated. Then, I took my current position at the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, where I mostly teach medieval and early modern Spanish history.

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am completing a book that examines the entangled histories of early modern Spain, Morocco, and Ottoman Algiers, and by extension the entangled lives of Christian and Muslim captives in the region. Captivity was a serious problem in the early modern Mediterranean, and scholars estimate the number of captives, Muslims and Christians, in 2 to 3 millions. The book argues that piracy, captivity, and redemption shaped the sea, a space integrated on the social, economic, and political levels. It demonstrates that despite confessional differences, the lives of Muslim and Christian captives were interrelated and formed part of a single Mediterranean system of bondage. These captivities were connected by a political economy of ransoming shaped by ecclesiastic ransom institutions; Spanish, Ottoman, and Moroccan rulers; captives and kin; and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian ransom intermediaries. They all interacted through texts that captives created and circulated across the sea. The history that emerges from these stories is both local and Mediterranean. It offers a comprehensive analysis of competing Spanish, Algerian, and Moroccan imperial projects intended to shape Mediterranean mobility structures. Simultaneously, the project reveals the tragic upending of the lives of individuals by these imperial maritime political agendas.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I became interested in captivity when I wrote a seminar paper analyzing the autobiographies of former Spanish captives. I was fascinated by how ex captives sought to convince their readers that they did not convert to Islam during their captivity, and yet, their accounts abound with different forms of religious, cultural, and imperial boundary crossing. I also began to see how problematic the absence of Muslim captives from this history is. Finally, I was struck by the importance of writing for captives—not only as a medium to make claims about one’s past after ransom, but also during captivity. Captives constantly wrote letters trying to arrange their ransom, and in its turn, this epistolary circulation extended the boundaries of maritime communities across the sea, putting captives in charge of channeling information about community members who had died, converted as captives, or suffered martyrdom. As importantly, researching Mediterranean captivity allowed me to spend two years in the Mediterranean.

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

As a historian, I engage in debates on the emergence of European territorial identities, cross-Mediterranean maritime networks, the political economy of forced migration, and the struggle between state and church over that mobility’s control and meaning. I do so by analyzing early modern interactions among 17th century Christian and Muslim captives, enslavers, redeeming friars, merchants, and rulers who struggled to shape piracy, slavery, and redemption according to their shifting vision – religious, economic, and political. The multiple cross-maritime interactions I explore do more than counter an image of a declining 17th-century Mediterranean dissolving into nation-states. They force us to rethink early modern Europe and its others questioning how seemingly European territorial identities were shaped by transnational maritime networks and their transformation. In this sense, the framework that my book proposes for the history of the early modern Mediterranean and Europe have repercussions beyond that specific history and can provide a lens through which to understand the current ongoing crisis surrounding mobility across the sea.

 

 

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Dimitris Xygalatas

Xygalatas-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?
I am an Assistant Professor at UConn’s Anthropology Department and an affiliate of the Cognitive Science Program. Those two areas also reflect my background and training, which is interdisciplinary. I have conducted a combined 4 years of ethnographic fieldwork, but I have also worked in various social scientific laboratories. This allowed me to develop a research methodology which combines field and lab approaches and affordances.
 
  
-What is the project you’re currently working on? 
My research examines the effects of ritual participation at the individual and social level. One area of particular interest for me has been the practice of extreme rituals. I have studied some of the most intense rituals around the world, ceremonies that involve walking on fire, piercing the skin, altered states of consciousness, and other intense experiences. To do this, I often brought technological innovations into my field research, things like biometrics, cameras, motion detectors, and more. Using these quantitative methods has often raised important issues and questions. For example, as anthropologists, what are we to make of some of the discrepancies between our measurements and people’s phenomenological accounts? Say, when our quantitative observations about participants’ emotional reactions do not agree with what those participants report feeling, how do we reconcile these accounts? These are some of the questions that I am currently concerned with.
 
-How did you arrive at this topic?

I find ritual to be one of the most fascinating aspects of human conduct. It is a truly universal behavior, but we don’t think about it too much – we just do it. As an ethnographer, whenever I ask people why they perform their rituals, they typically respond along these lines: “that’s just what we do”; “we’ve always done it this way”; “this is who we are”. So, there is a sense of salience and sacredness about these practices; people agree that rituals are important to them, but more often than not they have no justification for why they are important. I find this quite puzzling, especially in the context of painful or stressful rituals, so the kinds of questions I am asking are concerned with what these costly activities offer to those who engage in them.

 

 
-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
Anthropology studies some of the most meaningful aspects of human existence: the things we see as sacred or taboo, the things that unite and divide us, those that we see as worth fighting or dying for, the things that make us human. And yet, ironically, anthropologists often have a hard time reaching out to a wider public, beyond the world of academic conference rooms and obscure technical journals. In my own work, I try to keep this in mind, and to explore new ways of communicating ideas and findings, including electronic and visual media. I believe that as academics, especially those of us funded by taxpayers’ money, we have an obligation to engage with the public and make our findings available to everyone. Specifically with regards to my topic, I would like to contribute towards a realization that some of the cultural practices we might consider obsolete, superfluous, or even primitive, often play a very important role in who we are are individuals and communities, and that age-old traditions have been able to survive for so long because they are an inextricable part of our nature.